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Jonny Donahoe: “If Christmas resonates of loss, grief or even guilt, you can’t escape that.”

| Comedy, Music, Theatre | 02/12/2017

30 CHRISTMASES - Promo Image (1), image by Anna Soderblom

Next week, rebellious musical comedy Thirty Christmases makes its London debut.  The brainchild of playwright, actor and musical comedian Jonny Donahoe – who stars in the show alongside Rachel Parris and Paddy Gervers – offers an intriguing alternative to more traditional glitzy festive fare.  

Ahead of the three-week run at New Diorama Theatre, Ian Cater caught up with the engaging Donahoe to discuss the show’s origins, and a host of topics ranging from Victoria Wood to reindeer sex.

For Andy Williams, Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year.  “But for a lot of people, it’s traumatic,” Jonny Donahoe explains, with the patient, persuasive voice of his Every Brilliant Thing character, rather than the booming baritone heard at a Jonny and the Baptists gig.  “If it resonates of loss, grief or even guilt, you can’t escape that.  And it’s compounded by the fact that everywhere you go people are signposting that they’re having a joyous time.”

That harsh reality forms the backdrop to Thirty Christmases, written and performed this month by Donahoe at Euston’s New Diorama Theatre.  If it sounds a heavy premise for a festive show, that was the 34-year-old’s intention.

“Last year, the Old Fire Station arts centre in Oxford asked me to put on a Christmas play for grown-ups,” he says, “as a counterbalance to pantomimes.  For all the glossiness and cheer of things like Peter Pan, they thought many people who like theatre are put off from going at this time of the year.  So that was the brief: to address a more serious topic, but in a way that’s hopefully funny and entertaining like other things I’ve done.  Now we’re bringing it to London.”

Family planning

Thirty Christmases focuses on a brother (Donahoe) and sister (Rachel Parris) trying to have a good Christmas together, despite the harrowing memory of their father disappearing on that day 17 years ago.  It should be an ideal showcase for Donahoe’s many talents, including his wonderful way of weaving warmth and humour into dark stories.

“It’s a musical comedy about siblings trying to remember how to have a good relationship,” he explains.  “My sister and I grew up in a very unorthodox family and had some unusually sad experiences as children.  So I wanted to write something about coming through that and looking at the strength of what’s left.”

30 CHRISTMASES - Production Image (3), image by Josh TomalinGiven its semi-autobiographical nature, casting the right onstage sister was important.  “I wanted a comedian who could act – rather than a straight actress – as I think it brings something special to a drama about families, which are inherently humorous.

“I saw Rachel’s show, Best Laid Plans [What’s On London’s 2016 Best Musical Comedy], at Machynlleth last year and thought it was incredibly beautiful and vulnerable.  As well as being a brilliant comedian and singer, I knew Rachel was a talented actress, so she seemed ideal.  My real life sister also gave her blessing, describing Rachel as a more TV-ready version of her.”

In hindsight, Donahoe’s choice was obvious given his love for the late Victoria Wood, with whom Parris has been compared.  “I used to watch Victoria Wood on TV and borrowed loads of her scripts from the library,” he says of his teenage years in Reading.  “And when I found a copy of her play, Talent, it inspired me to write my first drama at 17.

“I can definitely see some similarities with Rachel.  Rachel’s extremely good at picking up on what people say and think in her songs, with that same soft touch that Victoria had.  And they’re both very warm people, which I’m drawn to in comedy.  I find it very hard to watch people who are cold and reluctant to let you in.”

Carol singing

The third and final cast member is Paddy Gervers – another warm, talented performer and Donahoe’s partner in Jonny and the Baptists.  The pair met at a wedding six years ago and have since carved a niche as tub-thumping, left-leaning musical comedians, as hilarious as they are thought-provoking.

“I had to cast Paddy, because I owe him money,” Donahoe chuckles.  “No, I thought the play needed a third character, a mutual friend of the siblings who’s always been there.  And I wanted it to have the songs and foot-stomping heart of a Jonny and the Baptists show.  So getting Paddy onboard was a no brainier.”

30 CHRISTMASES - Production Image (2), image by Josh TomalinAs you’d expect, the songs are designed to inject comic relief into the production, with the wonderfully titled Don’t Be a Prick at Christmas and Everyone’s Having Reindeer Sex particularly standing out in reviews from last year’s Oxford run.

“Yes, they’re real classics,” Donahoe laughs.  “I wrote the words, and then Paddy and I wrote the music.  But we taught them to Rachel fairly badly.  Perhaps her greatest contribution is that in performing the songs, she makes them sound much better written, such is her prowess.”

Although the show has a broadly socialist theme, the songs represented a departure for Donahoe.  “When we write a Jonny and the Baptists show, we write loads of songs about things we’re passionate about and then build a narrative around them.  But with this, I knew the story and wanted to work in some pastiches of traditional Christmas songs.

“I wrote down every Christmas song I could think of and tried to work out the formula: why do we listen to this particular type of music for a month each year?  I think I got it, although there’s some variation there.  You have virtuous songs, songs about love and absolutely filthy ones like ‘Santa Baby, hurry down the chimney tonight!’  We play on all of those in the show.  I originally wanted to do a Cliff Richard number as well, but in the end I couldn’t face it.”

Brilliant thinging

What the restlessly creative Donahoe seemingly can face is juggling his time between a large number of competing projects.  He’s currently putting together a new Jonny and the Baptists show, writing a play with his partner and fellow comedian Josie Long, and has a second Christmas show in Oxford this month.

He describes Working Christmas – co-written with James Rowland, and starring Omar Ibrahim and Joanna Neary – as a romantic comedy without the romance.  “I’m really pleased with it, but doing it this year has made things hectic.  I’ve been back and forth a lot, but have largely handed over the reigns to Daniel Goldman to direct it now.”

30 CHRISTMASES - Promo Image (2), image by Anna SoderblomIn truth, Donahoe’s delighted to be busy and relishing the return to his first love: playwriting.  “It’s been a circuitous route back, but an enjoyable one,” he says.  “After my first couple of plays, I decided to move into stand-up and later became part of a double act with Dan Benoliel called The Roaring Boys.  But it wasn’t because I enjoyed comedy more.  It was mainly because the plays lost a lot of money at Edinburgh and didn’t seem a viable way of earning a living then.”

The turning point came in 2013 when Duncan MacMillan asked Donahoe to help turn his short story, Sleeve Notes, into a play and then star in it.  The result, Every Brilliant Thing, is one of the most moving pieces of theatre this century.

As a one-hander about suicide, the show relies heavily on Donahoe’s ability to interact with the audience and intersperse melancholic storytelling with his natural humour.  It received strong reviews over here, but far wider popularity across the pond where HBO filmed it earlier this year.

This contrast jars a little with Donahoe.  “It was screened in a very prominent way in the US and then unceremoniously at around midnight here on Sky Atlantic.  It’s strange.  It’s a very British show but ended up having all its success in America and being filmed by an American network.  I wish it was getting more of an airing here, but there we go.”

Mass preaching

Similarly, Jonny and the Baptists seem undervalued by UK networks and programme makers.  Indeed, Donahoe jokes that the band’s handful of ‘Best of …’ shows early next year – including one at The Phoenix in February – “sound very arrogant when most of the world hasn’t got a clue who we are”.  But their following’s growing as they broaden their range and the Corbyn upsurge gets more people engaged with politics.

Once known mainly for provoking UKIP and Thatcher supporters, Jonny and the Baptists now fill their songs with arguments for change steeped in intellectual rigour.  And they make a point of touring far and wide to avoid merely preaching to the converted, serving an important role in the current political climate.

LS-FlyerforWebsiteNot that they neglect their support base.  Earlier this year, Donahoe and Gervers joined forces with Long and protest singer Grace Petrie to form a sort of socialist supergroup, under the banner Lefty Scum.

“We’ve done 10 already and have another 16 shows lined up in February and March.  I just love doing them,” Donahoe gushes.  “It’s like being in a gang show, which takes the pressure off us hugely.

“Josie’s probably the best political stand-up around, and Grace is my all-time favourite political songwriter and performer.  So if we put in a duff performance, we know it’s still going to be a fantastic show.”

He describes the group as “enjoyably rebellious” and revels in the negative coverage they receive from some sources, plastering disparaging quotes from The Telegraph onto the Lefty Scum tour posters.  However, Donahoe can expect to receive far more glowing reviews of his output this month.

Thirty Christmases is being performed at New Diorama Theatre between 4th and 23rd December (tickets here).  To keep track of Jonny and the Baptists’ various projects, see their official website or follow them on Twitter @Jonny_Baptists.  Every Brilliant Thing is available to stream here.

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